Last week, many scientists were shocked to find out that NASA had canceled its only planned lunar rover — a bizarre move since the mission could have helped with NASA’s plans of returning people to the Moon. But some in the private spaceflight industry see the cancelation as an opportunity for the rover to live on as a commercial mission instead.
Called Resource Prospector, the mission would have consisted of a lunar lander that carried a rover with a drill to the Moon’s surface. On Friday, NASA said that a few of the rover’s planned instruments will still fly to the Moon — just on future lunar landers instead. Yet, it seems that the space agency may no longer build the original rover it was planning to make.
Some experts see that as a problem: The whole point of Resource Prospector was to analyze how water ice is spread on the Moon and how accessible it is. Such information is critical for NASA and companies that want to mine the Moon’s resources someday; water ice could be used for things like drinking water or even made into rocket propellant. But the only way to figure out these details is to sample many different locations on the surface.
“The instruments themselves are only important if they’re on a rover that can drill one or two meters down,” Phil Metzger, a planetary physicist at the University of Central Florida who was part of the science team for Resource Prospector, tells The Verge. “If you’re just measuring in one spot, it doesn’t really tell you anything about [the water] as an economic resource.”
However, some see the rover’s cancellation as an opportunity to shift the reigns of Resource Prospector from NASA to the commercial space industry. The goal for the mission, just before it was canceled, was for NASA to design and oversee the construction of the lunar rover, while a commercial company supplied the lander, according to Metzger. Now it’s possible that the commercial space industry could provide both of those pieces and still execute the mission as planned. “If NASA threw out the idea to the industry, the industry would come up with ways to do it,” Jim Muncy, founder of PoliSpace, a space policy consulting agency, tells The Verge.
That could help free up funds at NASA for other projects. The space agency was working toward a budget of $250 million for Resource Prospector, but commercial companies could now shoulder more of the development costs. NASA could then pay the private industry for their services, and then the companies would have landers and rovers to sell to other customers.
It’s this kind of strategy — partnering with the commercial space industry — that NASA is focusing on to make its return to the Moon happen. On Friday, the space agency said it will soon solicit ideas from commercial companies for rockets and small spacecraft that can take NASA instruments and payloads to the lunar surface. It’s the very beginning of the Trump administration’s long-term plan to send humans back to the Moon. The president’s budget request for NASA, released in February, calls on the space agency to start funding small- to medium-sized lunar landers over the next few years. Then in 2024, the space agency will start funding landers that can carry humans.
Many companies are eager to heed the call to build landers for NASA. One company, called Moon Express, is hoping to send a fleet of landers to mine the Moon. Another, called Astrobotic, wants to set up a lunar delivery service. Both companies are working on their own commercial landers to fly in the next few years, and Astrobotic is also working on a rover, the Polaris, which could carry a drill. “If NASA needs a rover to send something up to the Moon, we’d be happy to take them up on it,” John Thornton, CEO of Astrobotic, tells The Verge.
Engineers at NASA had been working on the Resource Prospector rover for four years and had already tested out a few prototypes. The plan was to fly it as early as 2022, though the mission had not undergone a final design review and it was never fully funded. Still, canceling the mission now may mean waiting longer for a similar commercial mission to come together. Astrobotic says it could have its Polaris rover ready in a similar timeframe, though it’s a much smaller vehicle so the mission would have to be modified.
“To my knowledge, there’s no lander capable of doing what the Resource Prospector mission called for,” says Metzger. “Maybe they can get Astrobotic on contract quickly enough and Astrobotic can start modifying its rover and put [a similar] mission together again. That’s the thing I’d like to see.”
For now, it’s unknown if NASA will revive the Resource Prospector mission with a fully commercial rover. Metzger hopes NASA’s new administrator, Jim Bridenstine, will respond with clearer answers about the mission’s fate. Last week, Bridenstine did say NASA is committed to sending lots of robots to the lunar surface. So it’s possible Resource Prospector could return in a different form.